The Pistons implemented the Hack-a-Howard plan on Saturday night, and it paid off.
Orlando All-Star center Dwight Howard went only 3-of-11 from the free throw line in his playoff debut, and the entire Magic team missed 18 free throws in a 100-92 loss to the Pistons in Game 1 of the opening-round series.
The veteran Pistons calmly converted three-quarters of their free throws and committed only 11 turnovers to Orlando’s 21.
“When we played them the last time, we knew they didn’t shoot very well from the line,” Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said. “So putting them on the line is a strategy—that’s something you scout.”
The Pistons never trailed and demonstrated why they could return to the conference finals for a fifth consecutive season.
Billups, dubbed Mr. Big Shot for his clutch play, made his free throws down the stretch but otherwise wasn’t needed in that capacity Saturday. Instead, he had 22 points and 11 assists, and held his counterpart, Jameer Nelson, to 10 points. Nelson fouled out with 25 seconds remaining.
All five Pistons starters scored in double figures. Detroit hosts Game 2 on Monday night.
“I guess it was kind of poetic to be back here against my old team,” Hill said. “It would have been more poetic if we had won.”
Howard managed 13 points, despite the free-throw woes, and added 19 rebounds. He was three short of O’Neal’s franchise postseason record of 22 rebounds.
Orlando shot 58 percent from the field, but 50 percent from the line.
“Obviously, you can’t afford that many mistakes against a team of that caliber,” Orlando coach Brian Hill said. “We can’t do much about the free throws, but the turnovers have to be corrected. Too many of them were unforced.”
The Magic made a late run after trailing by double digits for much of the second half. Orlando got within 93-88 on Turkoglu’s long jumper, and Nelson took a charge from Billups on the other end to give the Magic the ball with 1:08 left.
Howard’s dunk made it 93-90, but Tayshaun Prince dunked at the other end with 37 seconds to go, forcing the Magic to start fouling.
“I think we may have gotten a little lazy in our execution toward the end of the game, but that’s something we can definitely improve on and make it a bigger, bigger deficit next time,” Wallace said.
The Pistons took their biggest lead of the first half after Carlos Delfino’s 3-pointer made it 45-31 with 4:15 to go. The Magic trailed 51-43 at the half after reserve Trevor Ariza made a layup at the buzzer.
The Pistons dominated the first quarter, jumping ahead 8-2. They extended their advantage to 25-14 on Billups’ jumper just inside the 3-point line with 2 minutes remaining in the period.
The Magic are making their first postseason appearance since 2003, when a Tracy McGrady-led team blew a 3-1 lead in the first round against Detroit.
The Pistons took Milicic second overall in the next season’s draft. He played Saturday despite spraining his foot earlier in the week.
“Darko was great. I wasn’t sure if he was going to play, so I asked him right before game time and he just mumbled,” Grant Hill said. “I didn’t know what that meant, but I guess I know now that mumbling is good. He had a good game here in Detroit, and I know he was dying to do that.”
The Pistons are in the playoffs for the sixth straight time and 30th overall. They are trying to at least reach the conference finals for the fifth straight year, a streak only one NBA team has surpassed in better than two decades. The Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the conference finals six times in a row from 1984-89.
Detroit is the only team with 10-plus wins the last three postseasons.
After winning the NBA championship in 2004, the Pistons lost in the finals to San Antonio the next season and were knocked off by Miami in last year’s conference finals.
Orlando set a franchise postseason record for field goal percentage. The old record was 57.8 percent against Atlanta in 1996. … Several members of the Detroit Tigers attended the game, including catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and starting pitcher Justin Verlander. The defending American League champs lost an afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox, but were able to make the trip north to suburban Auburn Hills in time for the 7 p.m. start. … Detroit-area rock star Bob Seger also was on hand.